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BOE considers adding meeting for community comment

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

The Clayton County Board of Education will vote on June 2 to tentatively adopt a new policy that would remove public comment from the monthly business meeting, and create a third monthly board meeting to address the matter.

The new meeting would be held on the Thursday immediately following the board's work sessions, which occur at the end of each month.

Board and district leaders said Tuesday -- during a board work session -- the policy change would benefit the public, because speakers would not be limited by the 30 minutes currently set aside for public comment. Each speaker, however, would still only have two minutes to speak.

Final adoption of the policy change will not occur until the July 14 business meeting, because such changes have to be placed on the table for 30 days before a final vote is taken.

"There might be something brought up by a parent or another community member, which the board may want to amend their agenda to address during the next business meeting," said Corrective Superintendent John Thompson.

Some parents who attended the work session were concerned about some of the proposed changes, though.

If all of the policy changes are adopted, members of the public, who want to speak at the meetings, would have to call the board's secretary by 4:30 p.m., on the day of the meeting, just to get on a list of speakers.

Board Chairperson Michelle Strong said this requirement may not remain in the policy when the board votes on it, because it may make it harder for the public to address the board.

Speakers would also have to provide the board with 10 written copies of their complaints, although Thompson said this was being required in case a member of the public runs out of time before he or she finishes speaking.

The speakers would also have to adhere to the guidelines set out by a proposed, new policy which would require the public to act in a civil manner while on school system property.

The speakers will also be encouraged to speak about items which were on the agenda for the preceding work session, although the board will not make it a requirement to participate in the public comment meetings. "They can get up and talk about how the blue cow jumped over the moon if they want, because they have the right to do so," Strong said.

Larry O'Keeffe, the father of a Morrow High School student, said he had a feeling the board might make a dramatic change to the public comment policy when he heard it was on the agenda for the work session. He also said he may ask an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawyer to review the policy changes, and see if the revised policy constitutes a violation of free speech.

He was worried that some board member may still try to force speakers to talk only about items which were on the agenda for the previous board meeting. "That's like telling [a newspaper reporter] what to print," O'Keeffe said.

Charlton Bivins, chairman of the Concerned Citizens of Clayton County, said he didn't understand why members of the public needed a policy that tells them how to behave.

"We aren't the ones acting like fools," he said. "There's going to be less people speaking to the board. Those of us who attend the meetings on a regular basis will know what to do, but the regular Joe Blow, who has an issue with the board, and doesn't attend the meetings on a regular basis, won't know the rules and won't be able to speak to the board as a result."

In other action Tuesday, Thompson also told the audience he will release his plan for keeping the school system's accreditation on June 2. He said the school system will meet all of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' (SACS) nine mandates for improvement by July 15.

Thompson said the district is on target to meet the mandates by that date, and he wants to see the school system "moving forward at a fast pace ... It is my intention to put us in a position where if we do not get full accreditation in August, to at least get us on a short probationary period," he added.

Ramona Thurman, the school system's budget director, said the district has collected $750,000 of the $13 million Delta Air Lines owes the school system in back taxes from 2006. The school system has been slowly getting Delta's back taxes from Clayton County Tax Commissioner Terry Baskin, who has been getting the money from a bankruptcy court.

The district hopes to receive more than $2 million in Delta's back taxes this summer, Thurman said.

The board also officially hired acting Deputy Superintendent Judith Simmons to fill the position on a permanent basis, although Thompson said she was the permanent deputy superintendent earlier this month.

In addition, the board hired a new legal counsel to replace outgoing lawyer, Dorsey Hopson, who will leave the district at the end of the week to take a similar position in Memphis, Tenn.

The new attorney, who is from the Atlanta area, asked members of the media not to identify her until she informed her current employer of her intention to join the school system.